The young tough guy stands at the entrance of his territory. He had been surveying and marking out his space for some time. No other male must enter and those who dare to come in are asking for trouble. A rival arrogantly announces his presence as he swims in but is cut short just a few metres from the entrance. Silently they eye each other and then the battle begins as they wrestle and tussle, swaying from side to side. Finally, the other scurries away all sore, leaving the champion bruised as well.
However, accessibility and special treatment is only given to the beautiful and gorgeous females making their way to this special rendezvous. They aggregate or gather together only once a year at a precise time usually just before the new moon to spawn or mate.
Such is the exciting story of the mating manners of groupers, commonly known as kawakawa in Fiji, which are a delicacy in urban areas and commercially valuable fishery for Fiji's coastal communities.
Conservation International marine project manager Loraini Sivo who had worked with a team from the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations (SCRFA) in 2003 to 2009 on the spawning of grouper species said most of the fishes would be females with only a few males. Grouper species are locally known as kawakawa, kerakera, batisai, donu and others.
"The males will be the first to arrive and will fight for their territory as they prepare themselves for spawning and sometimes they have bite marks on them from fighting as they wait for the females to arrive, she said.
"When they spawn, the females will release its eggs while the male releases its sperm at the same time as they go up together towards the surface and disperse. The water around them will turn cloudy or milky as they release the eggs and sperms." She said spawning usually took place near reef channels because they could be helped by the currents but this time of spawning was usually targeted because they were known to locals and fishermen. "Catches are often very high from spawning aggregations because the fish are concentrated and may be very easy to catch," Sivo said.
Hong Kong University lecturer Dr Yvonne Sadovy who led the team that worked on spawning sites in Kadavu, Vanua Levu, Lau and Yasawa said that in 2000 it was understood that many spawning aggregations around the world that were not managed were disappearing.
"So we began a project in the Pacific to learn about aggregations there, to provide information that could be used for good management," she said.
After the project in 2009 she still continues to visit and survey the Naiqoro Passage in Ono, Kadavu.
Dr Sadovy said after a few years of research they had seen a decline of some species at the passage which had a strong indication of poaching. And emphasised that spawning aggregations had to be protected and managed.
"Many reef fishes aggregate to spawn and spawning aggregations are the only opportunities these fish have, to mate. Therefore the aggregations are essential for population replacement.
"If fish cannot reproduce (have babies) then their populations will disappear and the fishery will stop!"
She said we should let the adults mate by protecting aggregations so that the babies they produce could be fished in future.
Groupers typically gather at aggregation sites to spawn in late July through mid-November in Fiji, often around a full moon. Traditionally, these sites were well known to local fishermen and the opportunity to easily fish them was capitalised on. But in modern times, as fishing pressure has increased, particularly for commercial sale, grouper aggregation has made it easy to deplete the fish, as they all gather in one spot. The problem is exacerbated because the fish are taken before they spawn the next generation of grouper. So you lose all those fish, plus what could be millions of fish eggs that create the next generation of grouper.
Last week a diverse group of partners from government agencies and non-governmental organisations to private sector companies and communities launched a campaign called Fiji Groupers Spawning Aggregation campaign. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to ensure that the fishery can continue to support communities and commerce in Fiji for the long-term.
On Friday, onlookers at the Hibiscus Festival received a surprise performance: a flash mob of more than 120 people dancing to a modern version of the tune, "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees. Gaining in popularity across the globe, a flash mob is a choreographed dance, in which people gather suddenly in a public place to perform, and within minutes, quickly disperse. The dance, and the apt song, signified the launch of the Fiji Grouper Spawning campaign.
The impetus behind the dance was to share a conservation message in a non-traditional format. "There are so many messages given to the public on a daily basis," said Sanivalati Navuku, manager of the SeaWeb Fiji program. "Instead of sharing another gloomy message that warned about our ocean's future, we wanted to reach out in a fun, engaging way that encourages others to join us in reaching our goal. We are people of the islands, made of music and dance, so this was a perfect way to kick off this campaign."
As the dancers moved to the music and people cheered them onâ€¦.it ended with a banner that said "More eggsâ€¦.More fish" which simply means if we want to have more fish we have to protect the mothers when they are pregnant and the few males who would be at the spawning aggregation site as well. So we have to think twice about catching them during spawning periods only so that we can have enough fish to eat now and for our future generations as well.